Updated: Mar 25
Think of the City of London as the shape of an orange segment. The curve to the north is the line of its landward Roman wall. The straight line along the south is the Thames. Inside those boundaries, the City’s total area is more or less a square mile - the Square Mile of today, the financial center of the metropolis. But high finance was a later development. The City was sited where it is, on the Thames’ north shore, to make it easier to trade hard goods - commerce that came and went in ships, passed through its wharves there, got warehoused, inventoried and moved on.
London had been fronted by a bustling dockland from the first. By the age of Empire and enterprise, shipping was queuing in mid-river for a berth, trading in the port was chaotic, the City’s docks and storehouses teemed. Worse, purloined cargoes, customs-dodging and organized mayhem were cutting into the revenues of merchant houses and government alike. No surprise then, that this was the place for a world first. In 1798, London installed the first ever formal, regular police force, and when it did, its sole purpose was to prevent and detect crime centered on the river. At that time there were 33000 workers in the London river trades. Thames Police trialed its operations with only fifty men. But like any good idea that meets a need, it caught on everywhere.
You can see the Thames Police riverside building as it was in 1859, on the right of this etching by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Back then of course there was no Tower Bridge so the view upstream shown below is uninterrupted.
There’s an interesting story that goes with these prints:
Whistler was a great admirer of Joseph Mallord William Turner. When in London he chose to live at Cheyne Walk, close to Turner’s own last riverfront home. The older artist kept his own Thames boatman on hand there, so that he could go sketching from the water. Whistler not only copied the habit, he even hired the same boatman’s two sons to row, mix paints (paint in tubes was new-fangled) and prepare his canvasses. He certainly needed the help. Whistler was prolific. The two etchings are from one of his outstanding series, a set of sixteen Scenes on the Thames. The detail is astonishing, the bustle so engaging you can hear it, the light on the water captivating. How on earth does he do that in black ink?
The much later photo is a the man himself, back in Paris for a spell. Whistler stands beside his etching press, in his studio at 86 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. The image is from the 1890s, yet so immediate you could be looking on from the other side of the room.